At this point in the season, especially when most teams know their individual fates as the playoffs/play-in/offseason all loom, only a handful of things matter. For one, you want your team to be healthy. Teams would additionally love to give their end-of-the-bench guys some run, particularly those that might be fighting for a place in a playoff rotation (or, *grimaces*, for a spot on the team next season). Also ideal: maintaining and/or gaining momentum.
The Boston Celtics desperately need to mark off every item on that checklist as they creep toward their date with [insert play-in tournament opponent here] (no, we still don’t know). Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself by somewhat analyzing the Celtics 124-108 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves before recapping it, I’m curious: how’d they fare with said checklist?
- Health: Well, their starters this afternoon were... Payton Pritchard, Evan Fournier, Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, and Luke Kornet. The Celtics are limping into the play-in more so than working toward it, as they were without the following against the Wolves: Robert Williams III (left foot turf toe), Marcus Smart (right calf contusion), Tristan Thompson (left pectoral strain), and Kemba Walker (left cervical nerve irritation). Jaylen Brown, obviously, isn’t walking through that door. At halftime, Mike Gorman said, “you name the Celtic, and he’s probably not here.” We’re 0/1 to start.
- Extra run for the “other” guys: Kornet and Ojeleye started the game, and in Saturday’s first quarter, Tacko Fall, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Jabari Parker, and Grant Williams all saw run. Tremont Waters would eventually check in. At one point, the Celtics fielded a lineup of Waters, Nesmith, Langford, Parker, and Kornet. No, this was not a Maine Red Claws game. But hey, 1 for 2 now!
- Momentum: Boston had lost its previous four games entering their second-to-last of the season. They won today’s, which by definition, is a step in the right direction. And I mean, hey, they can’t fall lower in the standings! So... 2 out of 3?
To the game. As it unfolded in full detail, that is.
The first quarter began a delightful, wicked disaster. The first bucket for either team didn’t fall until two minutes had ticked off the clock; Karl-Anthony Towns scored it, two of his 11 in the quarter and 24 for the game. The Celtics missed their first seven shots, four of which came from beyond the arc, and three of those threes were shot by Semi Ojeleye. They started 3-for-11 from the floor; Tacko Fall checked in before the quarter was half over; at one point, Romeo Langford weaved his way through the Minnesota defense for a confident reverse layup that Chris Paul would be proud of. Boston scored 37 points and led by 11 after one. Everything about it was atrocious. Everything about it was glorious.
But hold your gleeful yelps, for I’ve yet to mention the most beautiful silver lining a fan could ever dream of: the “stay ready” Celtics did this against the Timberwolves starters. Not just in this particular game. The starters they’ve been running with all season; a lineup that includes a former Rookie of the Year, a potential Rookie of the Year this season, a max-able guard, and a catch-as-catch-can core of role guys who have made the back quarter of Minnesota’s season bearable to watch. The T-Wolves are 15-19 since the All-Star break, one game worse than the Celtics; that’s an exceptional half-season when compared to their 22-49 record in full.
Perhaps their poor performance on Saturday came by way of neglect. Minnesota’s neglect of its supporting cast, that is, those that have made the most of their roles during this lost season. The likes of Jaden McDaniels, Josh Okogie, Naz Reid, and Ricky Rubio haven’t merely putzed their way through the latter half of a season that has made this shoddy team semi-worthy of headlines that call them “too good to tank.” They’ve been vital pieces in the early stages of this long-term rehabilitation project, and while they may not reside in Minnesota for much longer, they’re not undeserving of their flowers.
In this game’s first half, though, the KAT-D’Angelo Russell-Anthony Edwards trio shot 31 of their team’s 47 shots and only drained 12 (that’s a 38 percent clip, not great for three guys who are paid and played primarily for their scoring abilities). Meanwhile, Boston’s makeshift band of misfits managed to deliver their best efforts shooting the ball (from three in particular, where they shot 43 percent in the first half) and taking care of it (just five turnovers; the box score was much prettier than the game).
As mentioned up top, it’s crucial for players who don’t typically get extended run to get exactly that late in the season. It gives coaches a chance to see exactly what they have with the offseason around the corner and one or so spots still vacant in their final playoff rotation. You expect Jayson Tatum and Evan Fournier to score in double figures on a nightly basis; you hope for a player like Ojeleye will toy and tinker with his less-refined skills in these late-season situations. To find him crashing the offensive boards, or to find Waters zipping passes to open cutters on the baseline feels, without exaggerating, like finding a bar of gold hiding in the tank atop your toilet.
Their contributions, along with efforts from Kornet, Langford, and the usual suspects, helped propel the Celtics to a 66-47 lead at the half. Tatum and Fournier played through much of the third quarter, surprisingly, and scored as effectively as ever, unsurprisingly. Tatum had 23 points through three, hoping to make one last case for belonging on an All-NBA team this season. Fournier, meanwhile, had a pedestrian 13, though his six assists made for a glowing three-quarter report card. Both will likely sit out of tomorrow’s 1:00 p.m. ET game against the New York Knicks, so to end their individual regular season campaigns on a relatively high note — momentum! — was welcome.
Through three, we didn’t necessarily learn anything that we didn’t know already, though it was nice to see some Celtics further solidify their positions in what is likely a close-to-solidified playoff rotation. Leading 89-74 after three, the rookie duo had combined for 18 points and would go on to pour in 20 total. Pritchard aimed to extend his range, while Nesmith continued to outduel bigger opponents in the paint, thus further growing into his role as a Boston version of PJ Tucker.
A sign of how much respect Pritchard gets now? Rubio is guarding him at the logo.— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) May 15, 2021
As for the other guys? Well, it’s nice to know who’s expendable, at least. Grant Williams forced far too many passes and maintained his consistent run of “oh, hey!” and “oh, dear” plays. Jabari Parker briefly excited CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith, but it’s hard to make a case for him receiving consistent minutes next season unless he evidences considerable improvement during the offseason or preseason. Tacko Fall has been fun. His time very well may be done.
It’s still difficult to gauge what the Celtics have in players like Waters and Langford. By virtue of an increase in minutes and touches on Saturday, Waters recorded seven assists, quite a few of which were impressive; he whipped several of them from the top of the key to the baseline like a shortstop throwing a man out at first. But he’s a limited shooter due to his size and oozes more potential in his minutes against lesser opponents than he does with starter’s minutes. Langford, by contrast, is at the mercy of his own athleticism. He overdoes it on both ends, occasionally ending plays in triumph, but more often closing them out with a foul or a brick.
And though the Celtics did its best to allow the Wolves back into the game — at one point, their once-humongous lead dwindled to just 12 — and forced themselves into a corner where Tatum and Fournier had to check back in, simply so their teammates didn’t blow it, they’d survive without looking back on their way to a 124-108 win. They had no reason to worry about falling below seventh, as their placement in the conference is a lock, but again: it’s all about the checklist. Momentum isn’t necessarily as important as health, but it’s a nice perk.
The Celtics will close out the weirdest regular season in NBA history tomorrow against the Knicks. What a ride it’s been.